Our winter climbing courses in Scotland are held all over the highlands, including Ben Nevis, Glencoe and the Cairngorms. It all depends on where the best climbing conditions prevail.
Traditionally, there are three main variations of winter climbing which Scotland has to offer. Our courses cover all of them. These are:- snow/ice gully climbs; mixed snow and rock routes; and finally pure water ice climbs. Each of the genres requires slightly different techniques, equipment and tactics. However, what they all have in common is a sense of challenge and adventure that no other style of climbing can really compete with.
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We also run winter skills courses for novices in Scotland and the Lake District, and in Snowdonia when conditions allow.
Winter climbing courses in Scotland – snow/ice gullies
Many people’s first introduction to winter climbing is likely to be a Grade I gully. These are the simplest of the winter climbs. They usually consist of of a straightforward, though steep, snow slope hemmed in between steep rock walls. The gradient can vary anywhere from 45 degrees to 60 degrees. Usually it is possible to kick decent sized steps into the snow and there is plentiful protection on the gully’s rock walls. This is the ideal environment for learning about winter climbing and making the transition from summer rock climbing.
There are steeper and harder gullies too, however. One of the most famous Scottish gully climbs is Point Five Gully, on Ben Nevis. What makes some gully climbs harder than others is an increase in average gradient; a reduction in protection and choice of places to belay; and snow being replaced by ice and rock in places.
The photograph shows a climber in The Runnel, a very popular Grade II snow/ice gully. This is typical of what we do on a winter climbing course in the Cairngorms or in Glencoe.
Winter climbing courses in Scotland – mixed routes
The next main category of winter climbs is referred to as mixed climbing. On these climbs, you will find yourself climbing a mixture of rock, snow and ice. Often you will be climbing all three at once, with different limbs on each medium!
At the easy end of the scale, these routes are likely to be straightforward rock ridges that are often summer scrambles but are covered in snow and ice. At the very hardest end of the scale, the cutting edge of the sport is to climb very hard E-grade summer rock climbs in winter conditions. Winter conditions turn a relatively easy rock climbing into a much harder proposition under snow/ice. Typically a summer rock climb graded ‘Very Difficult’ is likely to be a winter climb at around Grade V.
In the photo a climber is leading the way in between ‘the fingers’ of Fingers Ridge in the Cairngorms, a popular Grade IV climb.
Winter climbing courses in Scotland – ice climbing
Thirdly, we have pure ice climbing where the main medium for climbing is, you guessed it, ice. The formation of the ice can be due to a summer stream becoming totally frozen in the sub-zero temperatures. Or it can be a more subtle line of seepage or trickles over rocks that build up a depth of ice after cycles of freezing and thawing. Not only do we have to climb the ice but also the ice provides our only means of protection.
As the photo of The Curtain on Ben Nevis shows, climbing steep ice involves careful use of two ice tools and the front-points of the crampons. Protection is provided by using ice-screws, which literally screw into the ice and allow the climber to attach a quick-draw and his rope to the screw.
Easier ice climbs are likely to be of a gentler gradient, say 60 degrees. They will have a series of linked difficult sections punctuated by good-sized flat areas to rest tired calf muscles. More advanced routes, with a technical grade of 5 or 6, are likely to be 80 degrees or vertical, with fewer rests and more tricky protection.
The Curtain is a Grade IV 5 climb on Ben Nevis, suitable for a more advanced winter climbing course.